Chess gives pupils a chance

Chess for Change teacher Wesley Powell says learning to play chess has changed his life.

A non-profit organisation is using chess to change the lives of children living in some of the city’s poorest neighbourhoods.

Durban-born David Berman started Chess for Change 12 years ago to teach chess to schoolchildren. Mr Berman was bullied at school and struggled academically until he discovered chess.

Today he is a successful hedge-fund manager and multi-millionaire, and he has credited the game with his success.

Howard Goldberg, a former teacher and Western Province chess champion, is Chess for Change’s programme manager.

He said Mr Berman had started Chess for Change “to give back because chess made him what he is today”.

The organisation hires teachers to teach children how to play chess during a normal academic day.

“I teach at HJ Groenberg Primary School in Kensington and at schools in Koeberg and Gardens. I teach the foundation phase, Grade 1 to Grade 3.”

He said chess taught children discipline, planning, strategy and concentration.

“It’s scientifically proven that children’s mathematical scores improve exponentially when they play chess, and this is what we have found,” said Mr Goldberg.

“At HJ Groenberg Primary School, I have Grade 2s who are doing Grade 4 mathematics, and these are pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds where drugs, violence and abuse are rife,” said Mr Goldberg.

“The children wait for me, and they get so excited. One child said he looks forward to my classes every week and told me he wants to be a chess champion just like I was.”

The organisation employs eight teachers and reaches between
7 000 and 10 000 children a week.

“The idea is not to make champions. The idea is to equip them with the skills that will allow them to go forward in life and to have a chance at success just like David Berman went from zero to hero,” he said.

Mr Goldberg has an MBA and is also the president of the World Boxing Federation.

“Chess and boxing are my two passions. To see these children learning is incredible to me,” he said.

Wesley Powell, 24, is one of the pupils who excelled after becoming involved with Chess for Change.

“When I was 12 years old, the organisation came to my school and since then I was intrigued by the game,” he said.

Mr Powell, who is now a Chess for Change teacher, said chess had helped him deal with problems in his childhood. “My friends were smoking dagga and cigarettes, at that age, and both my older siblings were addicted to tik. Due to the violence I saw around me, I became aggressive and experienced anger issues.

“My life could have taken a very different path. I could have ended up as a gangster or a drug addict.

“My advice to the over 1 300 pupils I teach each week is to always think ahead and have a exit strategy. I tell them to go study and not to settle for anything mediocre.”

Chess for Change teaches at Sid G Rule Primary School; Kannemeyer Primary School; Sullivan Primary School; Square Hill Primary School; Floreat Primary School; Hazeldene Primary School; Rocklands Primary School; Lukanya Primary School; Roodewal Primary School; Victoria Park Primary School and Avian Park Primary School.

* To learn more about Chess for Change, email manic@iafrica.com